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Game Reviews

‘Ape Out’ is the Jazz-Inspired Beat ’em Up, you did not know you Needed in your Life

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Ape Out is the ape-jazz-violence simulation you did not know you needed in your life. Smashing together brilliant design and satisfying gameplay, Ape Out is a short and stunning primal arcade blitz for fans of both stylish indies and tight, fun gameplay.

Created by Gabe Cuzzillo and published by Devolver Digital, Ape Out is, at its core, a top-down beat ‘em up in the vein of Hotline Miami. But Ape Out is also an unparalleled artistic achievement in its thrilling jam session of gameplay, sound design, and art style. While there are a couple of rough notes hit, Ape Out is a must-play frenetic experience.

Ape Out

I Want to Break Free

In Ape Out, you are an ape who is trying to escape from various confinements – labs, boats, buildings – that sort of ape cage. In order to break free, you must use extreme ape violence or extreme ape evasion. Your escape is almost always an exhilarating and rhythmic exploration of violence, power, and sweet satisfying death.

At its core, you guide your primate protagonist from one end of a procedurally-generated map to another. Between you and the exit, you encounter guards who want to shoot and kill you using pistols, machine guns, flame-throwers, and a few other tricks. If you are shot three times while in pursuit of the exit, you will die, and be reminded of that death by a big beautiful path-marked map and the letters ‘D-E-A-D.’ And rest assured, you will read these letters again and again, and in turn feel deeply compelled to try ‘just one more time.’

Ape Out Review

In order to get past guards, you have two primary tools at your disposal – pushing or grabbing. You can slam would-be captors into the environment, one another, or off of buildings in order to murder them in a satisfying red splat. Or you can grab gunmen (or the occasional unfortunate bystander) and slow your progress by using them as cover, crossfire, or just flinging their bodies about.

Ape Out Review

Ape Violence Is Fun

Not to put to grim of a point on it, but murdering guards is great fun. As a control mechanism, smashing works particularly well. Grabbing and flinging gun-wielding captors can be a little finicky, particularly when it comes to aiming them, but overall it’s another entertaining and effective tool in your simian escape kit. And when you aren’t smashing and grabbing, you’ll be using your final tool: straight-up running away.

Much of the gameplay loop is made of improvising a mixture of these three techniques balanced against the procedurally-generated terrains and enemies. In a jazz-like fashion, you’re left to make split-second decisions of whether to grab, smash, or run. What comes together is a game that is fun to play, but stirred up with the game’s presentation, you’re left with something truly special.

Ape Out Review

Ape Violence Is Beautiful

Like a night out in a smoky crimson cafe where the drummer hits every note right, Ape Out is gorgeous. Its design pulls from minimalist and graphic art and style of 1950’s and 1960’s jazz albums, and presumably from the artwork of legendary graphic designer, Saul Bass – an artist best known for many legendary cinematic title sequences including those of Alfred Hitchcock (and for the AT&T logo!?). And if you don’t care a whit about Saul Bass, you’re still going to come away thinking this game looks great. Bold contrasts of color intermingle with jittering textures mapped to neck-craning forced perspectives. Dark and light dance and keep you on your ape toes as you charge through every corridor and corner. Even when you’re screaming at your inevitable demise, you’ll still be shaking your head at how cool a given environment looked.

Ape Out Review

Ape Out’s beauty and identity stretch still further into its sound design. Few games reach so hard into sound and soundtrack to create such a total experience, but jazz is in every smashed skull. Each set of levels is structured as a small ‘album,’ each with a ‘side a’ and ‘side b’ accompanied by carefully crafted album art and the sound of a record needle catching its groove. But more impressively, the soundtrack is 95% drums. The whole experience is like a big long Buddy Rich solo set to violent bone-crunching crescendos.

In itself, drums and jungle violence are not only appropriate, but are a blast, but the designers went so far as to create a uniquely responsive soundtrack and sound design unlike anything before. As you progress, the drums speed up and slow down with your movement and action. Cymbal crashes punctuate each moment of dynamic violence adding splashes of powerful satisfaction to each splat of blood or crashed wall or enclosure. The gameplay is infused with the rhythm, each thrust and slam is a percussive gesture. You are part of the rollicking drum solo, and you want to kill as many guards as possible to keep the beat moving. It works, and it is is thrilling.

Ape Out Review

A Few Sour Notes

As wonderful as it is, there are some minor game design decisions that pull Ape Out from becoming a truly transcendent jam session. As mentioned, each map is procedurally-generated, so you’ll never play the same layout twice. These are not wholly random – every ‘album’ has a common and nicely-varied style, setting, and set of obstacles and enemies, and each individual ‘song’ tends to feature a consistent aspect to the level design such as a single choke-point that must be broken through. On the one hand, the random-ness adds to the sense of urgency and jazz-like improvisation. On the other, it creates some inconsistent scenarios where the luck of level and enemy layout dictates your results more than skill. Mixed with this, the ramping-up of difficulty didn’t feel particularly consistent, and a small number of the level designs were unforgiving enough to become frustrating rather than fun.

It should also be noted that Ape Out can be beaten rather quickly. I’m of the opinion that the game was exactly as long as it needed to be (though I’d gladly accept DLC), but gamers who associate number of hours with value should be aware that the experience can be brief. While occasional levels will leave you hung up, my initial playtime was under three hours. There are a few fun extras, including the unlock of a score-based arcade mode, and its inevitably a game you’ll want to pull out to simply show friends, but by-and-large your tale of ape violence ends quickly (but in a very satisfying place that we will not spoil).

Ape Out Review

Ape Out Is Extraordinary

In Ape Out, Gabe Cuzzillo and his small team have crafted something unique that comes highly recommended. This game is equal parts beautiful, thoughtful, exhilarating, and fun. The sum of its parts is a creation that is all-too-rare in games – something fresh and unlike anything else. I found myself thinking about it when I wasn’t playing it, and unable to put the controller down in order to give each board ‘just one more try.’ To have that gameplay experience put together with so much artistic flair is the kind of game that is worth killing for. Again and again and again.

Ape Out is a rhythmic pulse of thrust-push-kill fun. Ape Out is the kick drum rolling right into to the snare and a crash just as you crush that guard a hair before he pulls the trigger. Ape Out is blood trailing behind you when you can’t take another shot and crossing through the green door of freedom and into the jungle beyond at the last moment.

Ape Out is so much fun.

Ape Out is very beautiful.

Ape Out is jazz.

Marty has a new book, Retro Games! Forty of the world's mightiest old school games from the NES through The Playstation. Marty is an artist, writer, teacher, and maker living in Brooklyn, NY, best known for making sock puppets and taking their pictures. He's written four other books, made lots of art, and made even more sandwiches. He loves writing about video games and pop culture almost as much as he loves digesting them. Yum!

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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